Commentary: Is Tom Foley The Wrong Man To Send To Tokyo?

Japan's trade surplus with the U.S. is rising again. Japanese leaders listen politely but basically ignore admonitions from other Group of Seven countries not to export its way to stronger economic growth. Japan continues to drag its feet on deregulation that would improve market access to foreigners. And it has yet to faithfully implement several hard-struck trade pacts with the U.S.

So who is the Clinton Administration about to nominate as its new ambassador to Japan? None other than Thomas S. Foley, former Speaker of the House of Representatives and a charter member of the so-called Chrysanthemum Club of U.S. Japan apologists.

The Japanese couldn't be happier. They've been lobbying long and hard for his appointment. To Tokyo, the genteel, mild-mannered Foley would be a welcome relief from his two tough predecessors, Michael H. Armacost and Walter F. Mondale. Both men arrived with little Japan experience but learned fast and brooked no nonsense.

POMPOUS CIRCUMSTANCE. The Japanese have been cultivating Foley for years. At their behest, he led 13 congressional trips to Japan since the late 1960s. Since losing his House seat in 1994, he has visited Japan five times, once to troll for clients for his law firm, Akin Gump, and another to pick up the highest decoration Japan bestows on foreigners who are not heads of state.

Foley's Grand Cordon of the Order of the Rising Sun, Paulownia Flowers, awarded a year ago, is usually reserved for members of Japan's imperial family and former Japanese prime ministers. Only three other Americans have been so honored--former Secretary of State George Shultz and former ambassadors to Japan Douglas MacArthur II and Mike Mansfield. Armacost and Mondale have yet to receive any decorations. All but one of Japan's living former prime ministers showed up at Foley's award ceremony.

American trade hawks also worry about the former Speaker's priorities. For one thing, he comes from Washington State, home to Boeing Co. and one of the few states to enjoy a trade surplus with Japan. "Foley has always been way behind the curve on trade-policy issues," says Alan Tonelson of the U.S. Business & Industrial Council. Tonelson sees the appointment as "one more sign that the Administration has decided to pretend the relationship has never been better, even though serious problems remain that are likely to get worse." Foley's office declined comment.

Foley's selection primarily is a reward for past service to the Democratic Party. But it also underscores a softer White House stance toward Japan since 1995 because of what had been a declining trade deficit and fear of pushing the Japanese economy over the brink. Some think Foley is actually a good pick because he would have credibility in Tokyo if the U.S. stance toughens. "It may be better at this point to have this sort of conciliatory, diplomatic front line, because under the surface, things are starting to bubble," says Mindy L. Kotler, the usually hawkish president of the Japan Information Access Project in Washington.

DOUBLE TROUBLE? But American hardliners see danger. In addition to their concerns about Foley, they worry that his deputy chief of mission will be Christopher J. LaFleur, now second-in-command at Washington's embassy equivalent in Taiwan. LaFleur is the son-in-law of former Japanese Prime Minister Kiichi Miyazawa and is more steeped in security and political issues than in trade matters. Some wags have dubbed a Foley-LaFleur combination as Japan's "Dream Team."

There is also trepidation about Kent E. Calder, a Princeton University Japanese studies professor who is in place to become a special advisor to the new ambassador in Tokyo. Calder is more dovish than his predecessor, economist Edward J. Lincoln. Observers laud Lincoln for helping to educate Mondale about Japan's waywardness, and they doubt that Calder, though respected by his peers, will provide the same edge for Foley. LaFleur and Calder declined comment.

Even some Japanese friends and sponsors of Foley admit to mixed feelings. "If he's seen by people as pro-Japanese, he will have to overcome that," says Tadashi Yamamoto, president of the Japan Center for International Exchange. Foley's term may not be a glide. But with him as point man, Japan will probably have an easier time getting its way with the U.S.

Contributing Editor Neff covers Japanese affairs from Tokyo. Borrus covers Congress in Washington.

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